Who killed Juanita? Part one: the wild days and wicked ways of the Cross

Juanita Nielsen holding copies of the local newspaper she published, Now, outside her former home at 202 Victoria Street, Potts Point. Photo: Nigel Scot McNeil.

On 4 July, 1975, activist, journalist and Kings Cross local Juanita Nielsen disappeared, never to be seen again. Almost certainly murdered for standing up to developers, her story symbolises a time when Sydney was awash with corruption. In this – the first instalment of a three-part series of articles exploring Nielsen’s disappearance – John Moyle sets the scene, painting a picture of what the Cross was like in its notorious hey day.

Recent print and television interest in unsolved historic crimes in NSW continue unabated, with further instalments of books, podcasts and new television series.

Common to all is the nexus between the highest levels of Macquarie Street, the Sydney Police Headquarters and the shiny criminals of Kings Cross, who, between the years 1965 and 1976, made Sydney one of the most corrupt cities in the world.

“It’s such an important story that really goes to the soul of Sydney,” Peter Rees, author of Killing Juanita said.

This state of play during Sydney’s post-war boom years stemmed from corruption in both major political parties, the police and judiciary – as well as many unexceptional citizens willing to participate for the few crumbs left behind.

It came to a head in the ’70s with the theft of major tracts of publicly-owned land, including land held for low income housing, and would pit police against residents, unions against thugs and result in more than one murder.

And only a few hapless participants would go to jail, while the rest would ride into the sunset with bags of cash.

This is the story of how this came about and the fallout that, 30 years later, would see the end of Kings Cross as an entertainment precinct and Darlinghurst Road become a boulevard of broken dreams.

The geographical area known as Kings Cross is actually the convergence of five roadways at the top of William Street, and the area of myth and literature called Kings Cross is, in reality, Potts Point – a suburb almost as old as European settlement, which once saw First Nations people cohabit with soldiers, entrepreneurs and convicts on license.

The neon lights of Kings Cross circa 1966. Photo: Stations of the X/Facebook.

Land grants to the wealthy saw the First Nations people moved to other parts of the settlement; windmills for grinding grain took their place, sat next to the first grand villas of the colony.

By the end of the 19th century, many of the villas lay in disrepair due to a long depression and many bankruptcies, while others, such as the magnificent Victorian era terrace houses, began to be divided into apartments in order to pay for their upkeep.

No rows of terraces were more magnificent that those on both sides of the plane tree-lined avenue of Victoria Street. These buildings would later become the centre of one of Sydney’s great grabs for urban renewal, which split a city and would result in a murder mystery that still resonates today.

From the early 20th century, the Cross began to develop its reputation for fine dining and entertainment, and by the 1930s was a hub for a cafe and cabaret culture that made it the destination of choice for soldiers on leave during World War II.

The Cross was also about possibilities – past, present and future – with few questions asked. Life in the Cross was for the making and the taking.

Born in 1907, Robin William Askin was a failed starting price bookmaker who rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party after being elected to the seat of Collaroy in 1950, before becoming deputy leader in opposition.

On gaining the leadership, he won the 1965 election, thus ending Labor’s 24-year hold on power.

Within two years, Askin had changed his first name to Robert and set about weakening Labor in all areas of government, starting with the abolition of the Labor dominated Sydney City Council and redistributing the electoral boundaries in favour of the Liberals.

Pro-development, Askin quickly took the wrecking ball to historic Sydney by demolishing the Theatre Royal and the Australia Hotel to build the MLC Centre.

Plans were also drawn up to drive freeways through the hearts of Glebe and Newtown.

The Cross was also undergoing change when, in 1960, the 14-storey Chevron Hotel towers over Macleay Street were bookended at the Darlinghurst Road end by the Crest Hotel .

Built in 1967, the Crest was famous for its Goldfish Bowl bar, where the haves could look out at the not so haves traversing Darlinghurst Road.

Abraham Gilbert Saffron was born into a Russian Jewish family in inner city Annandale and after being demobbed from the army, set about seeking a more lucrative life founded in supplying booze for Sydney’s never satiated thirst.

In 1947, along with two partners, Saffron took over the prestigious Kings Cross nightclub The Roosevelt and, soon after, a string of Sydney pubs.

With his string of nightclubs, Abe Saffron transformed Darlinghurst Road into ‘The Strip’. Photo: Lost Sydney/Facebook.

The plan was to use the pubs to legitimately buy booze, which would then be diverted to the clubs and black market outlets, thus making enormous profits – all thanks to the state’s draconian liquor laws and cops looking the other way.

It was sometime during the ’60s that Saffron would first come into contact with the Glaswegian and self styled showbusiness manager James McCartney Anderson, known around the Cross as ‘Big Jim’.

In 1959, Saffron would open Australia’s first strip club, The Staccato, in Orwell Street, and would soon follow with the Pink Pussycat, the Kit Kat Klub and the Pink Panther, all on Darlinghurst Road. The road, awash with patrons bathed in neon, was transformed into ‘The Strip’.

In 1963, on the corners of Darlinghurst Road and Roslyn Street, Saffron would build the premises that would contain the trans revue Les Girls and the Carousel nightclub.

Away from the two main streets, often located in small side streets, were a number of well established but illegal gambling joints, run by operators such as Perce Galea and Joe Taylor.

Around this time, notorious individuals including Lenny McPherson and George Freeman, would also make their early appearances in the Cross.

Clippity clop, clippity clop … ‘Howdy pardner.’ With that, in 1967, American ex-CIA agent Bernie Houghton rode into town and set up the US-styled outposts the Texas Tavern and the Bourbon & Beefsteak bars, specialising in homestyle hospitality aimed firmly at the influx of American GIs on leave from the war in Vietnam.

By 1970, this trade was estimated to be worth around $9 million a month to the area – but also brought with it an ‘everything goes’ atmosphere that allowed widespread corruption to flourish. The back bars of the Texas Tavern and the Bourbon soon became the haunts of crooked cops and shadowy figures such as South Sydney Junior’s Wally Dean.

The Kings Cross demi-monde at this time was largely made up of loose alliances between semi-organised gangs, many with their origins in Woolloomooloo and the Surry Hills, but Saffron would soon change this.

The ’70s would also be a decade of great social changes and would become known as the era of feminism. First Nations and LGBT rights also became hot topics, in conjunction with a growing awareness of environmental issues.

Kings Cross as it appeared in 1970. Video: The Winner Is Sydney/YouTube.

By the late ’60s, The Staccato had been relocated to ‘The Strip’ and the Orwell Street premises was now known as the Venus Room,, famous for the ‘Dance of the Flaming Arsehole’, in which female dancers placed a rolled up newspaper between their butt cheeks and lit it.

The last to drop the flaming tabloid claimed the ultimate pyrrhic victory and would be auctioned to the cheering crowd.

The club, now managed by ‘Big Jim’, was little more than the front room of the upstairs brothel and was drenched in drugs and booze.

It would not be long before both the club and ‘Big Jim’ would become headlines for the company the establishment attracted.

Donny ‘The Glove’ Smith was an decidedly old school Sydney crim who wore a lead-lined leather glove, about which ‘Big Jim’ quipped, “When he hit you, you stayed hit.”

Anderson was soon to find that out first hand when, in the Venus Room one night in 1970, Smith hit Anderson, breaking his jaw.

‘Big Jim’ pulled his licensed .32 Browning pistol out and shot Smith three times, killing him.

Pleading self defence, Anderson was originally charged with murder, which was later downgraded to manslaughter before the case was eventually no-billed and the charges dropped altogether.

This incident would become one of the first in Sydney where a collusion between the police, the judiciary and the government can be established, and would also show where Anderson was in the pecking order of Saffron and his business partner Peter Farrugia.

In 1967, the State Planning Authority released plans to develop Woolloomooloo for high-rise development that would greatly reduce the population.

Enter property developer Sid Londish, who, having grown up in the ‘Loo, knew an opportunity and in the early ’70s spent $20 million buying 3.4 hectares known as the Wolloomooloo Basin for a $400 million development, with no housing component.

Londish, also known as ‘Quick Quid Sid’, and his company Comrealty, would go on to transform much of Sydney by pinpointing low income areas for redevelopment, including the Kings Cross Village Centre.

Finally, by 1972, to the relief of the many affected low income, social housing and First Nations residents of Woolloomooloo, actions by the Woollloomooloo Resident Action Group, various unions and finally, the Whitlam Labor government, with the cooperation of the city council, overcame the State Government and put an end of this vision for an antipodean Germania.

But up on the Victoria Street ridge, a new player was about to take greed for development to a new level.

Born into a wealthy Austrian textile family, Frank Theeman escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna, quickly fleeing to Shanghai and eventually Sydney, where with a £1,000 loan he set up Osti, Australia’s first manufacturer of nylon fabric.

Theeman would also be known for his high-stake gambling at professional levels and a prodigious sexual appetite.

In 1970, Theeman sold Osti to Dunlop for $3.5 million, and with his connections to the development friendly NSW Liberal Party, set about searching for opportunities. He quickly seized on Victoria and Brougham Streets in Potts Point, calling Victoria  Street “a beautiful tree-lined street close to the city which needed rehabilitation”.

Victoria Street terrace houses in Federation Filigree style. Photo: Clytemnestra/Wikimedia Commons, published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Forming Victoria Point Pty Ltd with family members and investors, Theeman’s vision was for three 45-storey towers and a 15-storey office block that would require the demolition of the entire area.

First they would need to get rid of the residents.

Victoria Street in the early ’70s was a mixture of low cost residential dwellings – often single rooms with shared kitchens in corridors – interspersed with a few remaining grander residential homes.

Opposition from residents was fast and strong, led by seaman Mick Fowler and the state branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), who quickly imposed green bans.

The residents included low income wharf labourers, musicians, workers, the unemployed and a young Mandy Sayer, who, with her musician father, mother and two siblings, lived in a single room at 115 Victoria Street.

“At the time Victoria Street still hosted a lot of elderly working class people and families, and we lived in the same building as Mick Fowler and his mother was our landlady,” Mandy Sayer, author, said.

“Mick Fowler went away to sea for about six months and during that time my parents received a letter giving us two weeks to leave the premises. We had no lease or anything, just paying five dollars a week.”

Lured out of their apartment by payment of their bond and two weeks’ rent, as the Sayer family packed for the short journey and a new life in nearby Springfield Avenue, the fight for Mick Fowler and the other Victoria Street residents was just beginning.

“We thought that was a bargain as we were living in slum like conditions, but we went from paying five dollars a week to $35 a week and the difference tore the family apart and we couldn’t afford to stay together,” Sayer said.

“The community was dismantled very quickly and only Mick and a handful of very dedicated people who would squat there were left until the developers began committing arson.”

This house at 115 Victoria Street, which survived developers’ wrecking balls, was home to activist Mick Fowler and a young Mandy Sayer. Photo: John Moyle.

By June 1971, Theeman had spent $7 million of his own money buying properties between 55 and 115 Victoria Street, as resistance grew and the few remaining residents refused to leave.

Theeman would later produce evidence that interest rates for the project amounted to $16,800 a week and that he was indented to CAGA Finance for $8,134,383, which included $2.7 million accrued interest.

Squatters quickly occupied the vacant buildings and a drawn out war of attrition soon erupted.

The term ‘green ban’ was brought into the vernacular by BLF secretary Jack Mundey in 1973 to distinguish them from ‘black bans’ on building sites.

Working with local resident’s groups and other organisations, green bans across Sydney had already resulted in major wins for the natural and built environments in Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill, as well as Glebe, the Royal Botanic Garden and The Rocks.

Theeman now saw ‘Big Jim’ Anderson – with his connections to Saffron, who had corrupt relationships with Askin and police commissioner Norm Allan – as someone who could help green-light his Lego-land project.

He would also employ Fred Krahe – a corrupt former cop following in the tradition of the Rum Corps, who was suspected of bank robbery and murderer – to bring in added muscle to evict the more than 300 people refusing to budge from Victoria Street.

Krahe would go on to employ Joe Meissner, the 1972 world karate champion and feared standover man, to knock on the doors of terrified residents with a crowbar in his hand.

In August 1973, author Patrick White was amongst a number of celebrity speakers who addressed the Victoria Street residents at the Wayside Chapel.

One night in September 1973, the campaign claimed its first death, when 23-year-old Aboriginal girl Esther Marion George, from Doomadgee Mission in Queensland, was burnt to death at 103 Victoria Street, a building where the gas and electricity had long been turned off.

A witness said Esther had arrived in the area only that day. The case was later recorded as resulting from “causes unknown”.

Meanwhile, in Darlinghurst Road, things were hotting up in a different way.

Even though most of the strip clubs were suspected to be owned by Saffron, they were often fronted by Peter Farrugia, known also as the ‘Dark Prince’.

Pay was poor and the conditions even worse, as veteran performer Elizabeth Burton recalls.

“There wasn’t much of a relationship between us and the people who ran the clubs, we were the slaves and they were the bosses,” Burton said.

“We did shows from 9pm to 5 in the morning and depending on how many girls were on the bill was how often you had to go on.

“The girls at the Pink Panther got $8 a show, and the big bosses like Peter Farrugia, who owned the Pink Panther, and Abe Saffron and Jim Anderson, would come in but rarely did they have anything to do with the performers.

“Jim Anderson was a scary dude and I didn’t have anything to do with him.”

Exterior of the Pink Panther club by day in July 1968. Photo: City of Sydney Archives/Dictionary of Sydney.

By the end of 1973, something unheard of happened: the strippers went on strike.

Citing working conditions and the sackings of performers who dared join Actors’ Equity, the girls were undermined even further by strikebreaking dancers brought in from Saffron’s clubs in Adelaide.

In early November, an Equity organiser was seriously bashed as he tried to enter the Pink Panther, resulting in the State Labour Council blocking all services to the clubs.

On 23 November, the striking workers holding a march along Darlinghurst Road were attacked by a large group of thugs outside the Pink Panther; as a result, other unions, including the BLF, joined the blockade of the clubs.

Three days later, Jim Anderson was seriously burned when a petrol fire gutted the Staccato Club.

Anderson claimed that he had intervened when he saw two people acting suspiciously outside.

Later, he liked to tell of how, when he was put into the ambulance, he scared the shit out of the ambos by taking his gun out and holding it next to him.

Farrugia backed up Anderson’s story but it was common knowledge in the Cross that the Staccato was losing money and in all likelihood Anderson had screwed up the arson.

Abe Saffron, meanwhile, always on the lookout for an opportunity, held property in Victoria Street through various fronts and shelf companies.

Parkes Developments Pty Ltd was formed in 1956 by Sir Paul Strasser, an Askin confidant, who by 1970 was Sydney’s largest landholder with his projects including the new police headquarters.

When Parkes Development lodged a DA on various properties in Victoria Street  it came to light that some of these properties had been purchased by Matana Ltd, with the address given as 119 Kippax Street.

This address was later changed to being ‘c/o Abe Saffron’.

Another group of properties at 119-139 Victoria Street were shown to be held by Spatial Holdings and Bafsim Number 17 Pty Ltd, with Spatial Holdings having the same Kippax Street address as Matana.

Contrasting with all of these criminals and shady business deals was the striking figure of Juanita Nielsen who lived at 202 Victoria Street and was the owner of a local newspaper called NOW.

Born Juanita Joan Smith in 1937, her father Neil was an heir to the retailer Mark Foy’s fortune. 

After an education at the tony Ravenswood School for Girls in Gordon, she worked at the department store before heading overseas, where she married merchant seaman Jorgen Nielsen in a Shinto ceremony in Kobe, Japan.

The marriage would last three years.

On her return to Sydney in 1965 she ran a boutique section of Mark Foy’s until 1968, when she had a falling out with senior members of the Foy family over plans to sell the store.

When a no-confidence motion failed, she left the family firm and, with the help of her father, set up NOW as a community paper surviving on local advertising.

David Farrell was her business partner.

“I was Juanita’s partner, business partner, and I handled the layout and then billings for the paper,” Farrell said.

“We worked as a team.”

In an area known for eccentricity Juanita stood out with her heavy eye makeup, perfectly tailored clothing and the beehive wigs she always wore over her own hair as she pounded the pavements of the Cross for stories and advertising.

By the early ’70s, the apolitical Nielsen had became politicised in reaction to Theeman’s grab for Victoria Street, saying: “Laws are based around property, not people, and the green bans made people more important.”

Nielsen was also realising that NOW was a voice for the community.

A memorial plaque for Juanita Nielsen and her publication, NOW, outside her former home at 202 Victoria Street. Photo: John Moyle.

When the death of Esther George in the spring of 1973 received scant attention in the mainstream media, which choose to refer to her as a “derelict”, Nielsen pointedly wrote in the 11 September edition of NOW: “There seems to be a whole new way of looking at life and death here in Victoria Street. If you are burned to death in Pymble, Redfern or Panania you are an accident victim. If you are burned to death in Victoria Street you are a derelict.”

Theeman’s project was by now haemorrhaging $16,800 a week and it was time to step up the pressure on the squatters and others who stood in the way …

The second instalment of John Moyle’s special investigation into the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen will be published this Thursday, 9 September, with the final instalment appearing on Saturday, 11 September.

At 8.30pm tonight (Tuesday, 7 September) the first episode of a two-part documentary television series into the affair, titled Juanita: A Family Mystery, will premiere on ABC TV and ABC iview. The program follows Nielsen’s family’s search for answers and comes off the back of the recent ABC Radio podcast Unravel True Crime – Juanita.

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.